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Federal investigators want more money to go after pandemic fraud

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The federal officials tasked with tracking down widespread fraud during and after the COVID-19 pandemic want more time and more money to finish the job.

The Justice Department’s COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force, made up of nearly 30 federal agencies, released its 2024 report on Tuesday. The report details the efforts of the task force in response to fraud involving COVID-19 relief programs.

The task force report pointed out that prosecutors have charged more than 3,500 defendants, won more than 400 civil settlements and judgments and that more than $1.4 billion in fraudulently obtained CARES Act funds have been seized or forfeited. The task force has also come up with a new data-driven approach to investigate government fraud.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said more work remains.

“Since that time, the COVID-19 public health emergency has ended, but the Justice Department’s work to identify and prosecute those who stole pandemic relief funds is far from over,” he said.

The task force report also asked Congress for more money.

“Under current [task force] funding levels, the government lacks sufficient resources to prosecute fraudsters who didn’t just commit pandemic fraud, but targeted the elderly through romance fraud schemes, U.S. companies through business email compromise schemes, and government programs through unemployment insurance fraud,” according to the report. “If we fail to provide the necessary [data to] agencies or neglect to extend the statute of limitations, our agents and prosecutors won’t be able to finish the job – losing the opportunity to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud proceeds and placing our citizens and government institutions at risk of future criminal victimization.”

U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have criminally charged 3,500 defendants in pandemic fraud cases with associated losses of more than $2.1 billion.

Estimates of the total amount of COVID-19 fraud have been limited.

A 2023 from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found those convicted of pandemic fraud were just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg is made up of potential fraud. And what’s underneath the surface may never be known, according to the report.

“Because not all fraud will be identified, investigated, and adjudicated through judicial or other systems, the full extent of fraud associated with the COVID-19 relief funds will never be known with certainty,” according to the report.

That GAO report also found most of those convicted will spend less than 5 years in prison and hundreds won’t serve time in prisons at all.

Another GAO report estimated that unemployment fraud during the pandemic cost taxpayers up to $135 billion or about 11% to 15% of the total amount of unemployment insurance benefits paid during the pandemic.

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